Grand Rapids, MI – In the months leading up to the Eastown explosion that leveled a building and injured seven people, the smell of gas was so strong at the neighborhood association office across the street that workers plugged in air fresheners to mask it.
“I smelled it here all the time,” said Grand Rapids Police Officer Jeremy Huffman, who rushed from the neighborhood office on Ethel Avenue SE to rescue trapped victims.
At the Subway sandwich shop less than a block away on Wealthy Street SE, customers recently had complained about the strong smell of gas, managers there said.
At Sami’s party store across the street from the destroyed building, one of the owners detected the odor of what she believed was natural gas three days before the Feb. 26 explosion, though unlike their neighbors, she did not report it to DTE Energy, which supplies natural gas to much of West Michigan.
Neighborhood leaders welcome the City Commission’s decision to create a task force with DTE to study the natural gas supply to the area.
“The businesses don’t want to lose customers, wondering if it’s going to be the next business to explode,” said Eastown Community Association neighborhood organizer Olivia Destrades Mendoza, who said the odor started a year ago and continued until the days before the explosion.
City leaders say the task force will study, among other things, the aging pipes that distribute natural gas through the area — many of them cast iron mains installed in the 1920s and 1930s.
DTE officials say the pipes are safe.
Fire investigators believe natural gas leaked into the building at 1500/1502 Wealthy St. SE, leading to the explosion. They are trying to determine if it leaked in from a gas main just outside the building.
Before the blast, building occupants contacted DTE about a natural gas odor. Once a worker got inside to look for the leak, he realized the building contained dangerous gas levels. The occupants were evacuating the building when it exploded.
Grand Rapids Fire Investigator Pablo Martinez said he believes the natural gas leak that day involved more than just one building.
He said DTE tested the area after the explosion and found natural gas inside a building two doors away. They also detected natural gas in the road after drilling holes in it, he said. “I think the area was saturated with gas,” Martinez said.
Martinez said he wasn’t aware that DTE had been in the area in recent months on reports of gas leaks, he said.
DTE Energy spokesman John Austerberry said he couldn’t comment on whether the utility had responded to recent complaints. “A review of customer calls is part of the internal investigation,” he said. “Until we can review and verify, we can’t provide any information.”
Austerberry said utility crews who responded to the explosion discovered a break in the line in front of the destroyed building, but it wasn’t known whether that happened before the blast or as a result of it.
Austerberry said the idea of a task force seems reasonable, depending on details.
“We typically work very closely with the communities in which we provide service, so this would not be all that exceptional,” he said.
Austerberry said the company’s mains, such as the line beneath Wealthy, are inspected annually and service lines are inspected according to a schedule. Inspections last year on both the gas main and service line to the building showed no faults, he said.
The Michigan Public Service Commission also periodically inspects piping systems and keeps records of inspections.
Destrades Mendoza said she had smelled natural gas near the entrance of the neighborhood association office for a year. Visitors frequently told her about the odor. DTE crews failed three times to find a source, most recently late last summer or in the early fall, checking a pilot light and the basement, she said.
After the explosion, DTE replaced the gas line that leads to her office from the gas main, she said. She no longer smells gas, she said.
Sami’s store owner Chris Peters said his wife told him three days before the explosion that she smelled natural gas. “I figured it was a truck going down the road,” he said. “I kind of blew it off. Now, I think I’d probably call.”
Subway manager Serita Palmer said DTE was called several times after customers last year repeatedly reported smelling natural gas near the front door. DTE told Subway officials they fixed the problem, but a month or two ago the complaints started again, Palmer said.
Mayor George Heartwell asked for a task force after City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss learned of the prior complaints of gas odors. Heartwell said City Manager Kurt Kimball will head the task force, working with city staff and DTE officials.